Psychoanalyzing Marco Rubio: After painful gaffes, speculation spreads that his problem isn't stupidity — it's anxiety

Rubio has a reputation for letting his anxiety get the better of him — and he can't hide it on the campaign trail

Published February 9, 2016 6:02PM (EST)

Marco Rubio   (AP/Star Max)
Marco Rubio (AP/Star Max)

It’s primary day in New Hampshire, and on the Republican side, all anyone can talk about is the latest utterances from Sen. Marco Rubio and celebrity billionaire Donald Trump.

Obviously, that’s par for the course for Trump. But if you hadn’t been paying attention for the last week or so, you might assume that Rubio had delivered some killer speech or zinger. He’s supposed to be eloquent, after all. So if people are buzzing over something he said, it must’ve been pretty good, right?

The answer is: not so much. In fact, that’s putting it too lightly. Translated into the vocabulary of the Internet, the answer isn’t “not so much”; it’s “nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.” Because after turning in what may be remembered as one of the most disastrous presidential debate performances in recent American history, Rubio did the one thing — the one thing — that would hurt his candidacy the most.

He said a line from his stump speech. Twice. In a row. Again. And what makes this time even more painful, arguably, is that you can tell he knows he’s screwing up as he does it:

How to explain this repeatedly self-inflicted wound? That’s probably a question best answered by Rubio’s therapist (though I very much doubt he has one).

But one explanation that is making the rounds — and which makes a lot of sense, especially if you remember Rubio’s infamous water bottle moment — comes from BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, whose new book on the GOP presidential race features a lot of good, deep reporting on Rubio. And according to Coppins, Rubio has a reputation among those who know him best for letting his anxiety get the better of him.

Coppins even goes so far as to say Rubio “panics.” As Talking Point Memo’s Josh Marshall suggests, this is not a word you want to associate with a guy seeking control over a massive arsenal of nuclear weaponry. From Coppins:

Millions of people watched Marco Rubio’s televised tailspin in the opening minutes of last weekend’s Republican presidential debate — but what, exactly, they saw depended on the viewer.

To rivals, Rubio’s reflexive retreat to the same snippet of well-rehearsed rhetoric — over and over, and over, and over again — was proof of the freshman senator’s status as a lightweight. To supporters, the wobbly display was a forgivable fluke, one bad moment blown wildly out of proportion by a bloodthirsty press corps.

But to those who have known him longest, Rubio’s flustered performance Saturday night fit perfectly with an all-too-familiar strain of his personality, one that his handlers and image-makers have labored for years to keep out of public view. Though generally seen as cool-headed and quick on his feet, Rubio is known to friends, allies, and advisers for a kind of incurable anxiousness — and an occasional propensity to panic in moments of crisis, both real and imagined.

No Rubio apologist is going to be inclined to spin this as a good thing, of course. But this should also squash any temptation to knock down a straw man version of the criticism, which we’re seeing from his partisans within the GOP already. The point isn’t that Rubio is dumb; it’s that he’s callow.

If you throw anxiety and panic — which Republican voters are likely to understand as “weakness” — into the mix? That’s even worse. And if Rubio has a bad day today in New Hampshire, things will get even rockier for him than they are already. Then he’ll really have a reason to start to panic.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith

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2016 New Hampshire Primary Aol_on Donald Trump Gop Debate Marco Rubio